Putting Away The Game
Before one of my most challenging lacrosse games, my mom read me a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that read:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
It’s a quote that is posted in many gyms, plastered on the internet under a simple google search of “inspiration,” and referenced in countless speeches about transformation and hardship. But “daring greatly” was a concept that didn’t make a lot of sense the first time I read it. I honestly thought I knew what being knocked down felt like. I mean, I had played lacrosse for the majority of my life thus far and had more than my fair share of hard hits and tough falls. I always got back up and found a way to stop the opposing team’s players from scoring. When I sustained my ninth concussion during my freshman year lacrosse season at UNC that ended my lacrosse career, I had a new understanding of what Roosevelt meant when he said being knocked down.
I realized that the “arena” he was talking about was not as simple as a sports game – it’s life. The dust, sweat, and blood is not actual dust, sweat, and blood – they are the depression, anxiety, and fear that come when a foundational aspect of your identity is taken from you, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. For me, “daring greatly” became having the courage to find out who I was without a lacrosse stick – a feat that was more challenging than any training session and more stressful than any championship game.
Yet, it is a journey that is rewarding beyond measure.
Lacrosse was one of the biggest parts of my identity for the majority of my life. It was something that I was passionate about and it provided some of the most transformational communities and experiences for me. My lacrosse journey actually started in the backyard of my childhood friend, David Klopp. He had been throwing a ball against the wall when I went to his house one day, and he asked if I wanted to throw with him. Being the sports-obsessed kid I was, I was immediately intrigued to try a new one.
I remember the first day of club try-outs like it was yesterday. David had talked me into it, and I felt enormously underprepared considering my lacrosse expertise was limited to his backyard. When we arrived at the field, the coach told us the first day was going to be all about skill – of which I had none – and the second would be scrimmaging. The first day went horribly, and I was sure there was no way that I would make the team. I left that day hating lacrosse, but my competitive side was determined to prove myself and went back the second day hungry for redemption.
The moment that changed everything for me was when one of the more experienced lacrosse players flattened one of the other players. I was confused. Having played soccer and baseball for so long, that type of physicality was new to me. Nobody on the field flinched, no one gasped, and no one yelled at the player – he simply got up and kept playing. I remember one of the coaches seeing my mouth wide open and chuckled when I asked if that was allowed. He told me that aggression is not only allowed, but encouraged in lacrosse. I smiled, stepped onto the field, and the rest is history.
I made a name for myself because I loved getting physical. When I was advancing through the different levels of lacrosse, I found coaches recommending me for defensive positions. Defense was fun because it was challenging. I had to guess the movements of the people running down the field, and I got to knock them off their feet to get the ball – and I was good at it. One of the teams I was playing for was older and had players that were much bigger and more intimidating than I found myself to be. I was consistently matched against guys that could knock me off my feet every time they came at me – until they couldn’t. The first time I traded my short stick for a long one was the day I fell in love with lacrosse. It was the moment that I not only found something I was really good at, but I found a home in the game. From there, I started to move up through the divisions to teams that were better and better, until I started to receive collegiate attention. Thus, recruitment began.
The college recruitment process starts early – so early that I knew I was going to be playing at UNC by the time I was starting my freshman year of high school. The process consists of camps all across the country where coaches from D1, D2, and D3 programs come out to watch the potential recruits. Club lacrosse and recruitment took up the majority of my time, and apart from football season – the only three months out of my high school years that I didn’t play lacrosse – I was consumed by my love of the game. Constantly playing high contact sports definitely took a physical toll on me, as I was diagnosed with several concussions. I pushed through injuries because I wanted to keep playing. By the time I got to college I had sustained eight (diagnosed) concussions – a daunting amount of trauma that I knew would catch up to me eventually.
The foundation for my love for lacrosse was in everything that it taught me.
Sure, I was excited to get onto the field and contribute to my team’s wins, but it taught me about camaraderie, discipline, and commitment. I found a family, celebrating our victories and feeling the sting that comes with loss – always together. The guys on the Carolina Lacrosse team meant the world to me, and going to battle on the field was my favorite part of my freshman year. I knew they had my back, and I sure as hell had theirs. Lacing my cleats and picking up a lacrosse stick became more than just love for the game – it became central to my identity. That part of me was taken away when my athletic trainer told me that I needed to stop playing lacrosse, and in the blink of an eye, it was gone – lacrosse was gone.
That has always been confusing to me: the adage “in the blink of an eye.” How could something be there one moment and completely gone the next? I’ve experienced loss and there is something inexplicable about losing something you love. But to do so without preparation or warning is a completely different ball game. I knew I had a myriad of past concussions, and of course, I knew that too many concussions were bad, but I never saw them as the reason I’d be permanently benched. When I put down my lacrosse stick for the last time, something inside me went dark – drowning out any sort of positivity with sadness, regret, and anger.
In addition to the internal struggle, the concussion made everything else more difficult – I couldn’t focus.
I couldn’t remember things and sometimes I struggled to see.
The summer following my retirement consisted of the darkest months of my life. I was in a constant battle of figuring out what my life looked like without lacrosse and my team. One of the most terrifying realizations was recognizing the feat ahead of me – finding out who Joey Carrington was without lacrosse. I had a ton of support coming from several different places, but ultimately it was the first time I felt unbearably alone, and I had absolutely no idea how to start finding myself again. Loneliness is terrifying and I was haunted by the ‘could have beens’ and ‘maybes,’ continually tormented by the idea that my former teammates were training to take on the next season. There is no playbook, no practice or drill, or any number of miles run or pounds lifted that can help fill a void as gaping as loss. Losing a part of yourself does damage, and it isn’t until depression grips you and pulls you down under that you get a taste of what drowning really feels like – and I was drowning.
When school geared back up, I was nervous. Nervous to take on college as this new version of Joey, and having to do so whilst living with my best friend who was also a lacrosse player. Our coach was really great about giving me the opportunity to continue my involvement in the team. He gave me the option to continue going to practices and participating in the lacrosse program. The catch was that I had to be totally committed to everything I would have had to do as if I was still playing. That meant I was to go to all the early morning practices, film review sessions, weight training, academic tutoring, and fulfilling the same requirements as the team members. I was thankful that to know the program was still there for me, but it was torturously unsatisfying when something you love is right in front of you yet impossible to catch. I know now I was doing it out of denial, trying to convince myself that I could somehow live vicariously through the other team members.
If you have ever tried to live vicariously through someone else, you would know that it is frustrating and unsatisfying. I was trying to play lacrosse without picking up a stick, longing to step on the field and be 100% again. While I had to realize the undeniable fact that I was not going to play lacrosse again, it was nearly impossible to accept. The journey to acceptance is a long one, and mine began when I decided to join a fraternity. My teammates absolutely had aspirations and passions outside of practice and games, but there seemed to be a consistent lacrosse component to all conversations. When I joined the Phi Delt fraternity, I was challenged to explore my own interests without that component. While my teammates had lacrosse, the guys in the fraternity matched their passion through work in mental health, business, social justice, religion, and art. I was blown away by the community that Phi Delt offered and I was captivated by the stories and direction of the brothers. As simple as it may sound, dinner at the house became foundational to my journey of acceptance. I was able to make connections, grow to trust a new group of people, and learn more about myself and the things that interested me.
Depression is something that doesn’t go away because you join another organization or find a new community to plug into – it is something that takes time to unravel, understand, and overcome. With time comes trust, and I began to see meaningful friendships in my pledge class. I took a massively positive step when I began to realize and appreciate the small victories. Whether it was connecting over something as small as movie taste or opening up about what I was going through. I had confidence in my relationships with the lacrosse team and I was able to accept that they would have my back even though I wasn’t always around them. I realized that I didn’t need to go to every lacrosse practice to feel connected and appreciated. I decided to invest a significant amount of time exploring my interests.
The rest of my sophomore year was exploratory. I was taking the time to be intentional about constructing new relationships and pushing myself to explore more about myself. I decided on a major, made some of my best friends, and made a lot of progress in the healing process.
Over the summer of 2019, I put my growth to the test – I coached lacrosse. It was the first time that I would have done something directly related to lacrosse in years. I was nervous going in, hoping it would not be a step back and draw out the longing I had struggled with before.
It ended up being a challenge but was ultimately one of those “full circle” moments people always talk about.
I realized I could have a healthy interaction with lacrosse without it being overbearing and I was happy to be a part of the community without being fully immersed. I could answer the questions that had been really hard to think about a year before and I could help people think about lacrosse strategy and skill without burning with jealousy and regret. It was closure and I was okay with that.
When I got back to Chapel Hill, I was excited to continue exploring who I was. I knew that my identity was not tied to my cleats or stick and I was looking forward to living with six other lacrosse guys in a house. I got a job with Truly and found out that I really enjoy branding and public relations. It is the first time since lacrosse that I feel like I was doing something impactful and I am excited about my future in the field.
Don’t get me wrong – I miss lacrosse. I miss the anticipation that comes during the practice before a big game. The excitement when I laced up my cleats and the rush of stepping on the field. I have battled depression as it tried to infiltrate my identity in place of lacrosse, and there are days that I still struggle to fend it off – but there is hope. Like I said before, acceptance is a journey. It was a journey that I found incredibly difficult, and one that I am still trying to navigate, but I have been challenged to grow and explore my identity outside of athletics. It’s crazy for me to think back to my first experience of lacrosse in the back of David Klopp’s backyard and all the events that followed. I think a lot of athletes struggle with letting their sport consume their identity, and many times it’s because we don’t feel like we have an outlet, or that people simply don’t care. It took a while, but I have realized that I am so much more than Joey Carrington, long-stick midfielder. For the longest time, I thought I wanted to come to Chapel Hill to win a national championship, and while that dream still lingers in the back of my head,
I have learned what it means to champion the journey of self-discovery.
- Joey Carrington